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How to create a dialogue about the colonial heritage?

Often I ask myself what my personal biografical connection to the European Colonial past and its continuation in the here and now, precisely is as a white, middleclass, middle-aged woman, based and raised in Northern Europe. Shouldn’t I be silent and give space to other postitions and perspectives, who are more relevant in this? One of those moments when I feel that it is relevant what I do was the educational situation I want to share with you.

The National Institute for the Dutch Slavery History and Heritage, the NiNsee, and the Dutch Open Air Museum in Arnhem, were organizing a study afternoon on Friday, January 12, 2024 for teachers around the Dutch transatlantic slavery history. Together with Barbara Esseboom, the director of comite KetiKotiArnhem I was giving the workshop for the primary school network. First we presented the program which we have been developing under the umbrella of the cultural centre Rozet and the comite Keti Koti Arnhem for primary school-kids and teachers. The artistic workshops are highlighting the lifes of the historical persons Anna van Vossenburg and William Stedman (Quaco), who had been living in the 18th Century in Arnhem after living in slavery in Suriname before. By telling stories we consciously highlight underexposed historical Black persons. First because the presence of Black people in Arnhem in the 18th century still comes as a surprise for a lot of people I encounter in  the white bubble of primary school teachers in East Netherlands. I think that it is meaningful when they realize that their hometown Arnhem has had a lot to do with slavery en being the hometown for a diverse group of people.

We are still searching for the ways to do it right… and there are a lot of pitfalls. One of the participants of the workshops was questioning our focus on telling only stories about Anna or Quaco and suggested to highlight also persons from the Arnhem elite, who got financially beneficiary, for example the shareholders of plantations.

Infused by the recent publication of eighty traces connected to slavery in Arnhem I try to create attention for and a dialogue about what this history means for our contemporary society. Which impact this history has on different people. We are all implicated in it and it holds a million different perspectives. Let’s listen to them.

What I found most rewarding for me was leading the active part of our workshop, which is more my field of expertise. After the informative and inspiring presentation of the keynote speaker Karwan Fatah-Black about Dutch Colonial history the participants of our workshop were coming into our room with the desire to proces this contested heritage. We offered them an artistic method of creative writing to express ambivalent thoughts and feelings around slavery by the speculative task to imagine yourself in the shoes of the person of Anna or Quaco and write their personal journal. After that individual introduction the participants got various tasks to change their texts in small groups, following the procedure of a creative-writing method for groups. Finally participants had been reciting their striking one-liners, which gave me goosebumps.

“Appeltje eitje, zonder emotie alle feiten oplepelen.”

“Als ik iets zou kopen, dan zou het aller slechtste aangeboren gevangenschap zijn. “

“Als ik een cadeau zou mogen vragen zou dat vrijheid zijn.”

“Een oceaan ver verwijdert van mijn familie, innig verbonden in deze kamer met mijn familie.”

Where is my position relevant when it comes to the colonial history? This kind of activitities is one of the things I would like to do more, I feel in my element helping people to express the diverse mixed feelings around our colonial histories and heritages and their impact on our contemporary society in the language of the Arts.


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